Thursday, September 9, 2010

Perspectives on "The Right to Be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America's Public Schools"

Stuart Biegel is a member of the faculty in the School of Law and the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. He has served as Director of Teacher Education, Special Counsel for the California Department of Education, and the on-site federal court monitor for the San Francisco public schools. He is the author of the casebook Education and the Law and Beyond Our Control? Confronting the Limits of Our Legal System in the Age of Cyberspace. His latest book, The Right to Be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America's Public Schools, will be available this month from University of Minnesota Press.

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This past year, one of my UCLA students, writing about California Proposition 8 and the effort by some of its proponents to turn the ballot initiative into a referendum about young people, the K-12 curriculum, and parental rights, told this story:
[During the Prop. 8 campaign,] I worked as a teacher’s assistant at an elementary school. While helping out after school, a plane passed overhead and wrote in the sky “Gay Marriage is Unnatural.” When my students read what it said, one of them, a young boy of about eight, began to cry. I had no idea what had suddenly come over him, and when I asked him what was wrong, he just looked at me and asked, “My parents are unnatural?” This question struck me hard and I was at a loss for words.

The UCLA student went on to write that incidents such as this led her to better understand the realities that many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons, their family members, and their friends face in education settings today.

I wrote The Right to Be Out to help shine a light on these issues. Our public schools are filled with LGBT students, administrators, faculty, staff, parents, community volunteers, and their families, friends, and allies. They often have multiple identities, and may also be people of color, English language learners, students with disabilities, highly religious, dedicated athletes, etc. Many confront a wide array of challenges on a day-to-day basis.

This book takes a strong position on behalf of equal treatment for LGBTs. At the same time, the book recognizes that LGBT issues impact people of every sexual orientation, every gender identity, every religion, and every perspective on religion. Implicit in such an approach is a recognition that a safe and supportive educational environment -- built upon shared values and geared toward a greater appreciation of our pluralistic society -- can lead to a better world for everyone.

While some may argue that you are either with the gays or with the religious and never the twain shall meet, this is not true for substantial percentages of our population. Many LGBTs are very involved in religious activities and pursuits. Many branches and denominations of organized religion are increasingly welcoming to LGBTs, and the “freedom of religion” guarantees of the First Amendment are clearly there for everyone, gay or straight. Recognizing all these interrelated points can help us find a reasonable middle ground.

Many gay and gender non-conforming students are happy, well-adjusted, valued, and fully accepted members of their school communities. Many others, however, face radically different circumstances, and are encountering horrific mistreatment on an ongoing basis. Still others are somewhere in the middle, experiencing a combination of support and denigration that can make day-to-day realities rocky and unpredictable. In this context, there are many within public school communities who seek to keep any mention of LGBT status or LGBT issues out of the discourse, whether it be in the classroom, in the hallways, in faculty meetings, or in professional development. Yet it is not possible to address problems in any setting without being able to talk about them. Not talking about problems only allows them to fester.

School officials often approach LGBT issues with the perception that things are highly polarized. Yet, as the book demonstrates over and over again, there is great opportunity for progress here, identifying a reasonable middle ground that can be both palatable and inclusive for all members of school communities.

As stated in the Preface to The Right to Be Out, I do not “presume for one moment that the task of effecting further change in K-12 education around these matters is an easy one. Even as the book notes how far we have come, it invariably recognizes how far we still have to go ... But an optimistic best-case scenario is essential if further change is to occur. We may not get to a best-case scenario any time soon, but it is imperative that we continue working in that direction.”

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Find out more about The Right to Be Out.

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